In the world of the hagwon, the customer is always rightOne of the hardest things for me when I started teaching elementary school kids at a hagwon, or private language school, was making class fun enough to keep the students interested without losing control of the class. When I was able to strike that delicate balance between education and entertainment, everybody learned something and had a little fun. But when the scale tipped too far in either direction, things could turn ugly fast. Start having too much fun and the kids would bounce off the walls; give them too much dry information and they would start staring out the window and daydreaming.
Being an overgrown child myself, I tended to err on the side of too much fun. But there were a couple of problems with my approach. First, though young at heart, I didn’t have the physical energy to put on a three-ring circus all day long. By the time my fifth class of the day started I was worn out and irritable. Second, I became known as “The Funny Teacher,” which was kid code for a pushover.
One Friday evening, with just one class left in a long week as ringmaster/educator, I was looking forward to the weekend. I hummed a catchy little Roger Daltry tune as the students filed into the classroom. I went over the answers to the homework, we breezed through the next unit and started to play a game. As the game progressed one of the boys (I think his name was Kenny) started taunting any student who made a mistake. After warning him several times, I took him out of the game and made him the scorekeeper. But he continued saying abusive things to the other kids.
I had had enough and asked him to leave. The way I saw it, it wasn’t fair to the other students to let him stay and continue saying awful things to them. He had to go. I picked up his book bag, opened the door and said, “Goodbye Kenny. I’ll see you next week.”
“No,” he said. “Give me my bag.”
Visibly irritated, I said, “If you want your bag come and get it.” I placed the bag out in the hallway and when he went to get it I shut the door and locked it. He started kicking the door, screaming for me to open it. The rest of the class and I did our best to ignore him and went back to playing the game.
When I arrived for work on Monday, the director of the school called me into his office. He told me that Kenny’s mother was furious about what I had done. I explained what happened. “I see your mind,” he said. “But you must understand one thing: It’s true these children are our students, and we must educate them. But more importantly they are our customers, and we must satisfy them.” He asked me to send a letter of apology to Kenny’s mother. I refused, and I never saw Kenny again. Of course I never threw another customer out of class either.
The writer, an American, teaches high school in Seoul.
by Dylan Alford